|Monday, April 7
Updated: April 9, 4:12 PM ET
Bloch rules Jets didn't have binding agreement
By Len Pasquarelli
In a stunning move that is certain to fan the flames of enmity between the two teams, arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled Monday that the New York Jets failed to properly match a restricted free-agent offer sheet to Chad Morton, and instead awarded the prized return specialist to the Washington Redskins.
"Chad Morton is going to look great playing in burgundy and gold," an exultant Redskins owner Dan Snyder told ESPN.com amid a celebration in his office, "and I want to see how the Jets spin this one now."
Bloch, who heard the 90-minute case last Thursday, essentially upheld the contention of Morton and the NFL Players Association that the Jets erred in opting not to match two "voidable" seasons at the end of the five-year offer sheet. He found that, contrary to stances by the Jets and NFL Management Council, the voidable years were, indeed, a principle term of the offer sheet.
The ruling further bolsters a Redskins team that has been among the league's most active franchises in the offseason. New York does not have any appeal rights on Bloch's decision.
In Morton, the Redskins acquire an explosive return specialist, and a player they feel can help them as a third-down tailback as well. Washington must surrender its fifth-round draft choice to the Jets as compensation in the deal.
Morton, 26, is a three-year veteran who began his career as a fifth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in the 2000 draft and was then traded to the Jets in 2001. He has returned 114 kickoffs for a 24.4-yard average and two touchdowns. His 26.0-yard average in '02 was the league's second best. He might also return punts for the Redskins, although he has limited experience in that role. The former Southern California star signed a five-year, $7.945 million restricted free agent offer sheet with the Redskins on March 6. The last two years of the deal were voidable, meaning they would be expunged if Morton reached certain predetermined performance benchmarks.
But the Jets, who retained the right to match any offer sheet to Morton by making him a qualifying offer in February, appealed to the Management Council, essentially the league's labor arm, contesting the voidable years. The Management Council subsequently ruled that the voidable years did not represent a "principal term" of the offer and did not have to be matched.
When the Jets opted to match the offer, on March 20, they did so without matching on the voidable years. Not surprisingly, Morton and agent Leigh Steinberg filed a grievance through the NFLPA, declaring the Jets had not fully matched the offer and suggesting that the player be permitted to move to the Redskins.
That was essentially the stance the NFLPA adopted in the Friday hearing and with which Bloch agreed.
When the Jets filed their "match" on the offer sheet, they did not include the addendum, which dealt with the voidable years. Bloch said that the failure to do so left the Jets without a binding agreement.
"The Redskins have dealt straight with Chad Morton and his representative throughout the negotiations and also what transpired afterwards," said Norm Chirite, the team's counsel, who was present at the hearing. "We had a clear agreement on the voidable years and felt all along that was a key part of the offer sheet. The Jets basically ignored that key factor."
A source close to Morton said the voidable years stipulation was a "hotly contested" part of the negotiations with the Redskins. Basically, if Morton reaches the prescribed performance levels, the five-year deal will become just a three-year contract. Such a scenario will increase Morton's cap charge in the third year of the contract, the 2005 season.
Steinberg had advised his client not to sign the contract with the Jets until his future was decided by the arbitrator and Morton, indeed, skipped the beginning of the team's offseason conditioning program last week.
Morton is the second restricted free agent acquired by the Redskins from the Jets, joining highly regarded wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who signed a seven-year, $35 million offer sheet that included a $13 million signing bonus and which New York declined to match.
Officials from the teams have exchanged verbal salvos over the past few weeks and, notably, the clubs meet in the league's regular-season opener.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.